Hagar Shipley is the daughter of a self-made wealthy grocer in Western Canada in a bleak spot presided over by the stone angel on the hillside cemetery overlooking the town. This blank eyed symbol is over the grave of her mother who died giving birth to her. The father is a dominant, hard man that she takes after, her two brothers weaker and less intelligent fit only for the counter culture. Shop, I mean. She’s sent East for refinement to a school for young ladies. Now all she has to do is to be decorous and wait for a suitable marriage on which her father has the final say. From internal evidence the year of her birth was 1875 or so. The dominant strain in her temperament is firmness, a good trait that unless balanced by prudence leads to obduracy and spite. So it happens. Unable to show affection which can be read as dependence and weakness she resists her father’s attempts to find a suitable match and to spite him marries a widower 14 years older than her, a shiftless man by her father’s and her own striving standards. Possibly a unique event in modern literature is the description of her faking non-orgasm.
This book isn’t in the past but of the past, from the view on the hill of 91 years of age and a stone angel about to topple over. All the past is passing through her mind and her pride revived and celebrated as an antidote to her progressive defeat by A.D. Marvin and Doris her son and daughter-in-law look after her in their home and its wearing them down. She refuses to accept the offer of an old folks home and be the recipient of care which she needs. In between the present 1960‘s struggles with her son and the ghosts of the early 1900‘s the story of a life emerges that kept taking the wrong turns. There will be some insight but no hugs.
The writing is quite excellent and though a tray of madeleines could be binding the transitions are worked seamlessly. Here she is dancing with Bram her future husband:
We spun around the chalky floor, and I reveled in his fingernails with crescents of ingrown earth that never met a file. I fancied I heard in his laughter the bravery of battalions. I thought he looked a bearded Indian, so brown and beaked a face. The black hair thrusting from his chin was rough as thistles. The next instant, though, I imagined him rigged out in a suit of gray soft as a dove's breast-feathers.
Oh, I was the one, all right, tossing my black mane contemptuously, yet never certain the young men had really noticed. I knew my mind, no doubt, but the mind changed every minute, one instant feeling pleased with what I knew and who I was and where I lived, the next instant consigning the brick house to perdition and seeing the plain board town and the shack dwellings beyond our pale as though they'd been the beckoning illustrations in the book of Slavic fairy tales given me by an aunt, the enchanted houses with eyes, walking on their own splayed hen's feet, the czar's sons playing at peasants in coarse embroidered tunics, Housed and belted, the ashen girls drowning attractively in meres, crowned always with lilies, never with pigweed or slime.
Read this one. Canadians: bang it about a little, gently now; knock the chalk out of it.